Archive for June, 2009

Blushing strawberries

June 29, 2009

The dishes are piling up all around the counter. I’ve done two days of garage sale with a friend who needed company at hers. I’ve also been out buying 50 mile diet stuff from the local farmers and have had to prepare it for the freezer. It all takes time. The kitchen is a mess. It’s after midnight and I may be a night owl but there are limits.  With about half an hour before me before tuck in time, I weigh in the balance: Clean up the kitchen? Write another anecdote of my fascinating life? Clean up the kitchen? Write another anecdote?


Aimée strode down the length of the house, bouncing with all the energy of a twenty year old full of vitamins.

“You were right, you know!” she calls (I love it when I’m right) as she comes to greet me. No hello, no hug, no nothing, just. .  . “He is a hunk!”

What?” says Mrs. Stepford, as if she were deaf, but she isn’t. “What?! Fill me in.”

“So you went down to see him?” I ask.

“Yeah! We talked about strawberries in porridge and other recipes.” She was beaming.

Aimée looks thirty, a born again cancer survivor, ready to make every minute of her life count now; but she’s fifty – just had her birthday a few months ago.  She goes out running every day along the dikes; she attends workshops; she brings up two teenage sons. She’s volatile and sexy, and she has an amazing mind – a leading edge published poet, a philospher, a former English teacher with moxy.

And Mrs. Stepford was clamoring to find out who, what and where.

I was in Vancouver on Friday, trying to get a few pieces into the company that scans artwork for reproductions.  I’ve been accepted into an international competition for painters and my work needs to be framed  within the next week or so. I won’t have the opportunity to do it afterward if, miracle of miracle, I actually sell it from the show.

I left the house at ten in the morning for an eleven o’clock appointment to scan three watercolours.  I figured I’d be finished by about two and I could carry on to get the matting done. But Karma said otherwise.

Once I had filled in the order form, the receptionist sent me away. The image would not be fully scanned before an hour and a half. I knew about this and had come prepared. I wanted to see the David Milne print show at the gallery just down the road. I spent about a half hour there and then walked the perimeter of the park grounds up to the little cafe thinking that if I didn’t eat a precautionary something now, it might be a long time before I got lunch.

Before leaving the park, I did one more round of the David Milne show. I find that if I look intensively at things, my eyes get tired and my brain shuts down so that after about half an hour, I’m not really looking anymore.  On the other hand, I’m getting old. I forget things easily. If I take a second turn around the pictures, I retain what I’ve seen much better.

Back at the reproduction centre, I waited twenty minutes before Henry brought me out a sample of what it would look like for my approval. He had lofty hopes of me accepting it first time, but the poor lad was out of luck.

The company prides itself on reproductions that are almost impossible to identify when sitting beside the original.  I tend to work in subtle colours and that makes it quite difficult to make the adjustments. For each of the three images, I must have sent them back for tweaking about three times each.

Between each proofing, I read a book or fell asleep, nodding off in boredom as I waited for the next layer to improve the matching quality of the repro. I left the place at five, annoyed and tired from so much sitting around.

On my mind as it got later and later was the little bug the green grocer put in my ear the other day – local strawberry season would be over in two or three days.  I was astonished at this. I hadn’t yet bought any and I had wanted to put a lot of them down in my freezer for the winter.I wanted to stop by a farm on the way back home and get some, fresh picked during the day.

The Fraser Valley produces the best strawberries ever.  They are small, dark ruby red and sweet. They melt in your mouth, and unlike ones that are picked green, full of water, frozen en route – in short, imported – they may get soft, but they don’t disintegrate or go brown easily.

So at five, I swung onto Canada Way and drove down to the Kensington exit to join the highway going east. It was the height of rush hour and the cars were crawling along like ants marching back to the anthill.

I cranked up the CD player to listen to Glen Gould playing Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. It was soothing after an afternoon of sluggish irritation, and as it finished and went onto the Schumann’s piano pieces, I had finally come to the Brunette interchange and merged into the United Boulevard lane, fretting all the while that the farm fruit stand would be closed before I got there.

The cars edged along the Mary Hill Bypass up to the Pitt River Bridge and then flowed easily over it. Unlike most evenings, the press of cars was lighter, moving like it would mid-afternoon. The new Golden Ears Bridge was open and apparently diverting much of the rush hour traffic from the Pitt interchange.

With minutes to spare, I swung into the farm called the Red Barn by locals. Curiously enough, it’s the only red one for miles around. Don’t they paint barns in red anymore?

As I parked up close to the fruit stand, a young man in his thirties who had been reading his book behind a table  in the main yard  leapt to attention.

We exchanged a few niceties about the weather which had been magnificent from eleven in the morning onwards.  All the while, I had been appreciating the good looks of this thirty-something man of recent immigrant stock who was tending the flats of freshly picked strawberries. He was most likely an athlete, his body build tall and lean somewhat like Mark Spitz, the Olympic swimmer. His hair was shaven completely, he had a broad smile and intelligent eyes. Here, indeed, was a looker.

“I blend a handful in the morning and toss them in my porridge,” he proclaimed.

“Me too, and if not strawberries, then blue berries. I’ll have enough for all winter,” I replied.

“We’ll have strawberries until the end of the week and then the blueberries will be coming,” he said. ” We are trying to get out of the fresh produce business and establish the secondary products – wine, juices and cordials, health products, dried fruits like the cranberries, gift packages and the like. The fresh berry products are a risky business. If it rains when they are ripe, the berries take on a lot of water and then when the sun comes out…”

“They split!” says I, showing by my finishing of his sentences that I’m raptly listening. ( Isn’t that what they teach in communication courses?)

“They explode!”  he said, hardly perturbed by my incorrect ending to his sentence. ” I’ve seen them burst wide open and splatter all over right in front of my eyes! Of course, they are useless then and we’ve lost our crop. Fancy by-products will allow us to make a better profit.”

I eyed the book he placed down on the counter when he had lept to attention upon my arrival. It was some kind of text book on managerial skills.  I mentally figured that he was probably at university getting his MBA in Blueberry Farm management.

“Wasn’t this the farm called The Red Barn a few years ago? Didn’t they have hens and ducks running around; and free range eggs for sale?”

“This is the one!’

“It sure looks a way better cared for,” I offered.

“The people who owned it got into trouble. They had a grow op in that building over there and got caught at it. They had to sell and we bought the property. Now we have this one, the next one which was our first and the one on the far side of it.”
I nodded my head and smiled broadly in admiration. Farm barons, I was thinking. These folks had worked hard to get what they had, and their thrift and labour had produced great results for them.

I bargained for a few baskets of soft berries. “I’m only using them for jam, ” I explained, and he obliged with two baskets of soft ones and the rest, really good ones of today’s picking.

When I got home half an hour later, I was on the phone lickety split to Mrs. Stepford but she wasn’t answering, so I left a cryptic message asking her if she wanted some of this season’s strawberries from the farm before they were gone.

Aimée phoned at eleven at night to fill me in on her up-coming travels and to recount her day. I returned the favour by telling her about the strawberry man.  “He’s just delicious to look at! It’s worth going down to get your berries there, if you want to put some in your freezer. They’re not going to be available much longer.”

And that’s how Aimée came to greet me at the door with her bouncy agreement on my choice of good looking men.

But that’s not all.

I picked the top off my strawberries, sugared and froze the good ones, stewed the soft ones in the microwave (three to five minutes in a covered big bowl depending on the strength of your microwave) and sweeten them afterwards; and drain off the liquid for a superb syrop for ice-cream or for just cake.

It took two hours to do up the case of strawberries. It’s a lot of time, but it’s worth it because these berries, well, they are just the best! When I saw how little it made in my freezer, though, I thought, what’s another two hours now for much foodie pleasure later.

An esoteric fact: They only pick berries every second day. It was Sunday just after the garage sale that I went down to see about another flat of berries that I could share with Mrs. Stepford.

The strawberry man was still there, tall, tanned  and smiling. A feast for the eyes.

“There are only these three flats until Tuesday,”  he said, fingering them, I wasn’t sure what for – whether he was trying to hold onto a few so he could sell them the next day or letting me know that if I wanted some, I’d better hurry up and get them today. His face let on no particular message; it was his more nervous hands shifting boxes and straightening them that was different from the first time I came.

Feeling a bit sassy, I said to him, “Have a lot of young women been coming down to buy berries in the last two days?”
He shrugged his shoulders and said there had been a few, but why did I ask?

With a wide grin, I said, “When I got back home, I called all my women friends. I told them it was worth coming to get their berries at the Red Barn; the berries were great;  and  that you were a feast for the eyes! I know at least one of them came and bought a flat, because she phoned to let me know that my taste in good looking men was just perfect!

I added,  with an apology for form’s sake only,” I can get away with saying these things. I'”m a grandmother now.”

He blushed strawberry red and laughed with me. “So that’s why I’m out of strawberries!”

“Well, thank you. Thank you very much. You are kind.” he said.

I told him that I’d tried his recipe for morning porridge – a puree of fresh strawberries mixed in with the oats and a touch of almond butter to make it slightly nuttier. “Absolutely delicious!” I commended him.

He carried my flat of berries to the trunk of my car and placed them in.

“Come back for the blueberries soon, ” he saluted me as I drove away.

It had started with a very frustrating day, Friday, and it had resulted in all this bit of happy Karma, with me happy, and him, and a slew of ladies with happy eyes.

Ain’t life wonderful?


June 26, 2009

When Mrs. Beeton lived, new industrialists were buying up houses from impoverished aristocrats. The parvenues were looked down upon by the lofty elite because they didn’t know how to behave in the world to which they aspired. They didn’t know how to manage their servants; they didn’t know what fork to use at the dinner table; they didn’t know what wines went with which dishes at the dinner table. Simply put, they didn’t know the aristocratic rules and regulations.

Mrs. Beeton to the rescue!

When the Industrialist Ecks Whyzed married the eighth daughter of the Earl of Whatnot, the rich esquire needed serious polishing. He was not alone. While the aristocracy declined, the upper  middle class arose. They could buy their way into country houses but they couldn’t buy their way into becoming blue blooded. Marrying into the upper crust didn’t help these new barons of industry integrate, but their progeny were quick to learn; and they coulc more easily mix and mingle.

Recognizing that this emerging class needed to be told what to do in order to fit in, Mrs. Beeton wrote a hugely successful tome called The Book of Household Management Comprising information for the Mistress which spelled out the various functions in a large household – the housekeeper, cook, kitchen maid, butler, and dozens of other household positions.  (see Wikipedia). The book is a collectors’ item now, and if ever you get the chance to read through it, it will tickle your funny bone. Some of the directions seem hilarious in our current day mode of informality.

Similarly, when North America was populated with Europe’s almost-starving masses in the huge waves of migration that took place in the mid-1800’s and the early 1900’s, a common desire of these people was to rise out of poverty through education.

The first generation of immigration was bound to work in conditions that we would find intolerable now. Many of the immigrants had no idea what conditions they were coming to. They expected that they would find accommodations when they came, but instead, they found there was practically nothing.  The land had to be cleared. Houses had to be built. Farms had to be fenced and fields created then planted. Many on the prairies began their North American life in sod houses dug down into the ground, or in tents in cruel weather conditions.

Nevertheless, the immigrants could own land – something most of them could never aspire to in the Old Country, which ever one they came from. They were free, but they had so little that it hurt. In the first generation, acquiring a stability of home and occupation had to be the first goal. In the second, the immigrants were able to educate their children and education was a way out of poverty and subsistence living.

My grandfather on my mother’s side came to Canada with nothing but his youth and enthusiasm when he was seventeen, a younger son of a large family. He profited from the offer of free land and homesteaded in Plumas, Manitoba. The details are fuzzy. Did he sell his land and buy another or homestead another? There is no one left to ask. In any case, the homestead from Plumas was traded up for one in Gladstone, Manitoba. Then eventually, he was able to buy a piece of land in Winnipeg and build a house on it.

By the time he was thirty, he had bought two more pieces of land in Winnipeg and farmland outside the city limits that he rented to a farmer. It was planted with potatoes. He went home to England and proposed to Grandmother.

She arrived in 1900 to a small house on the largest of his properties.  Envisaging a large family, he built a two story house with prosperous amenities – gas light, indoor plumbing and telephone.He had come up in the world by dint of his frugality and hard labour, his entreprenerial spirit and his guiding vision. He wanted an education for his children and a much better life than that which he had come from fifteen years before.

During the Depression of the ‘Thirties, he was able to rent out the two houses he built on his properties. They paid for the taxes on all his properties. The living was not rich; but a certain stability and ease had been acquired.

(Get to the point! I can hear you all thinking)

My Aunt became a teacher at the age of nineteen. My mother was too young when she finished high school to go out teaching. She was the last child, brilliant, and having skipped two years of school, she was barely sixteen when she graduated. Grandfather found a way of sending her to University and she had her first degree by the time she was twenty. Then she taught school until she married.

My father similarly came from very modest beginnings, grandfather having also immigrated and homesteaded. His father, too, was adamant that the children acquire as much education as they could afford. Father became a Civil Engineer  and when he got his first long term job, he asked for Mother’s hand in marriage and got it. Soon he was teaching at the University of Toronto.

In one generation, both families had moved from the labouring class to the educated class.  This is not so remarkable, in many ways, because our family was not the only one with these aspirations and these success stories. Many of those pioneering families went on to produce architects, doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, scientists, et cetera, et cetera – in a word – professionals.

Akin to the Industrial Revolution, the Educational Revolution had people moving out of their sphere of comfort in the social world.

Emily Post to the rescue!

Like Mrs. Beeton, Emily Post wrote in magazines of the day – and in books – about how one should behave in polite society.  My mother live by Emily Post’s rules.

One never telephoned before ten o’clock nor after eight at night. When setting a table, the knife blade is always turned inwards. The handle ends of the cutlery should be placed one inch from the edge of the table. If you are having a multi-course meal (soup, dinner, salad, dessert for example) then your cutlery is arranged from the outside inwards in the order that you eat your meal. Forks on the left, knives and spoons on the right.

So that means, starting from the far right, soup spoon, dinner knife, plate; and from the left, dinner fork, salad fork and dessert fork.

Ladies remained seated when a man came into the room; men rose and waited until a woman, coming into the room, was seated. Men always took their hats off then they came inside. Women wore their hats at luncheons. The rules were legion. If you wanted to succeed, you learned them. If you didn’t, nobody but Emily Post would tell you and you might easily be ostracized for a slip of the tongue or an incorrect deference to some aspiring-to-be notable person.

My generation never lived through all the aspiring. It’s that third generational thing about fortunes. When we were young, we never understood the passion that lay beneath the desire to succeed to high places. All we saw were the formalities that were like ligatures on one’s freedom of activity.

“It’s just not done!” my mother would admonish me. “What will people think?”

I saw her write and rewrite  her replies to invitations, to tea, to weddings, to showers, to convocations. They had to be flawlessly spaced, flawlessly written, flawlessly composed in her flawless, Maclean’s handwriting.

I rebelled.I went Hippie. I swore (Bon Dieu! What would people think!”). When I lived on my own, all the niceties of table setting and invitation making went out the window – and I wasn’t alone. I’d taken my gloves off. I no longer had a hat. Peace, love and liberty.

The third generation has children. I wasn’t alone in rejecting so many formalities of the ‘Fifties and the  “Sixties. From my loft age, now, I look upon the upcoming youth and am often appalled at their language. How can we blame them? Almost every television program uses the language that a sailor would have been unable to say in decent society.  The formality has gone almost totally from our lives.

Mrs. Stepford, my next door neighbour, and I are the same age. We both still like to set a good table. We still go to theatre and concerts, but we no longer dress up. The only hats we will wear are for going out in the sun, and that’s more likely to be a straw one. Gloves are to keep the hands warm, not a de rigeur part of evening dress or luncheon garb.

“Do you want a cup of tea?” says Mrs. S when I come to visit. It comes in a mug with a shared spoon for sugar. We sit at a table strewn with the detritus of our daily occupations – the newspaper, a book of telephone numbers, bills and letters, advertising to be scanned and chucked, this morning’s dishes, if there hasn’t been time or inclination to get to them. I do the same.

And so, last Sunday, I went to see some of Mother’s aged friends – young in spirit; friends who were faithful visitors and supports of my dear Mom as she lay dying. These same friends living by that generation’s style and code of behaviour, invited me to tea.

As I sat at their maple dining table covered with a lace cloth, I had spread before me two plates of cheeses cut and arranged beautifully on the plate; another plate of Turkish Kisses, small drop cookies with dates and coconut; a long bread plate with two kinds of crackers; and a plate with pecan tarts. All the china matched. It was Royal Albert’s Old Country Roses.

“Would you care for a cup of tea?” she asked so naturally, so politely in her soft, gracious way. It came to her as if she were born with the formalities and had lived them all her life. I was born to them and had struggled against them all my life.

“Please, help yourself to some cheese. Take some crackers. ” She poured the tea holding the lid with one hand, the other tipping the pot towards my cup and saucer. Each one of us had a little spoon for sugar and a little knife for spreading the cheese. I smiled.

Here was a way of life dying out. Or maybe, just dying out in my sphere, and I missed them. I momentarily thought of my mother and her pernicious attention to details.  (Oh no! Not those serviettes! They’re the wrong size! the wrong colour! They’re too frivolous for the occasion. Kay! Just what could you be thinking!)

I thought of her life-long passion for the formality that allowed her to become a matron of academic society. I had absorbed the upbringing and could function within the same spheres, but for myself, I had let go so much of the time intensive formalities and was glad, because I had been able to forge a different life, a life in art and creativity. I had been able to pass through many doors, both high and low, and manage.

After our little tea, Mr. White said, “Will you play the piano for us?”

I’ve never liked playing for others. I always have this sense that mother is standing two feet behind me criticising my mistakes.  But Mrs. White added her plea to his.

“It doesn’t matter what you play. Don’t worry. We just had the piano tuned and we’d like to hear someone use it. Pam (their daughter) comes by every weekend, but she doesn’t usually have time to play.”

So I sat on the adjustable piano stool – one of those ones with a turned post that you can twirl up and down for a change in height. I played one of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, probably the only piece that I know by heart. They made appropriate ooh’s and ah’s. and asked for more. I played another and got stuck in the middle somehow going round and round because I had no music to go by. I played Bumble Boogie until I got lost in it somewhere on the fourth page. I tried another Fugue and started the Raindrop Etude by Chopin but couldn’t get past the first page.

I finished the last bit with something I made up since I’d lost my place and couldn’t do otherwise. I turned on the stool. They were sitting side by side on their French Provincial settee, leaning forward to hear every note, holding hands so sweetly. I could have cried.

It was time to go and I did. They stood at the door  waiting till I got to the car. I got in and they waved me off as I drove away, thinking of the value of formality.

You ate cat food?

June 22, 2009

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Maya phoned. After a few pleasantries, she asked, “What are you doing this weekend?”

I replied rather warily. “Dunno. I’ve got a few things going. What’s up?”

“Actually, I’m phoning for a favour.”

It was Tuesday. My calendar looked clear. I waited. A piece of advice? Always make sure you know what you are signing up for before you say yes.

Maya continued, ” Devorah’s in the 300K cycling fund raiser this weekend. I’m signed up to assist –  to register everyone, to hand out water when they need it, to help cyclists that get into trouble along the way. We had a cat sitter all lined up, but she’s no longer able to come. I know it’s short notice….”

” Thing is: Gus would be OK by himself. He’s old enough. The next door neighbour will drop in and feed him twice a day. But we are fostering orphaned kittens. They’re too little. They have to be fed every four hours. They need someone to talk to them, to handle them and to stay with them. ”

“They are so cute!. You can’t believe how cute they are. And they are no work at all. I’ll send you some pictures. You’ll see.”

I’ll do it!” I said with an enthusiasm that I didn’t really feel. I had nagging doubts that I hadn’t put something on my calendar, but if it wasn’t there, then perhaps I didn’t.

Besides, I’m getting to be such a home body. I really didn’t want to go anywhere, but Maya is like a sister to me. She’s been a close friend for over thirty years and she has been so very good to me many, many times in my adventurous and often rocky life.  I have seldom been able to return the favours in any shape or form. She and her partner were in a fix; it was payback time.

On the  plus side, I could go do a few things in Vancouver without having to drive in and out each morning and night.

That was Tuesday afternoon. Mid-evening, my sister and her husband arrived back from their visit to their son Whistler who is working in Golden, B.C.

“What time are you leaving in the morning?” I asked.  I wasn’t being funny nor trying to push them out the door.  I love these two people and they have carte blanche to stay at my house any time they want. I honestly thought they were going home on Wednesday.

“Didn’t you read your sister’s e-mail?” asks Dauntless husband, a bit amused. I think he thinks I’m a bit of a dithering, forgetful fool.

“Yeah. Well, so?”

“We are staying until next Tuesday when she has her specialist appointment. ”

Later that evening, whilst reading the local newspaper, I saw my name on the advertisement for the “Artist Day at the Farmers’ Market” ( I already told you about that yesterday).  I needed two days to prepare for the market. Also, on Thursday my cousin whose mom just died a few weeks ago was coming for tea in the morning. She’d never seen my new house before. I’d have to have it tidied up a bit. With a sinking feeling, I realized that I had completely double booked my calendar. I had visitors coming, visitors already here,  and I wouldn’t even be home! It was too late to change anything; I could do it all if Heather and my brother-in-law would forgive my absence Saturday, Sunday and Monday, but getting it all done would be very tight.

As God sometimes does, he arranges things for me when I really, really need it. For one, my sister and husband were super-understanding. “Just go do what you have to do. We’re adults. We can look after ourselves,” said Heather, encouraging me not to worry, only too glad that when they had medical appointments they didn’t also have to pay for accommodations.

Then Cousin Maria sent an e-mail to say she couldn’t make it on Thursday. She had double booked and had absolutely forgotten that she was committed to lead a Girl Guide hike and couldn’t get out of it. Could I forgive her and let her come another time? I gracefully let her off the hook without letting her know that I, too, was overbooked.

Perhaps things would be alright after all. On Friday, the hospital phoned for my sister to say the doctor would not be available on Tuesday next. Her appointment was cancelled. He had another meeting.

But don’t get me started on this rant. Heather seemed resigned. I was furious for her. Her trips down from Sechelt always cost so much and she’s not well these days. The specialists so cavalierly cancel appointments without any regard for the time or expense that a patient has put out in order to be there when the doctor sets an appointed time. Nor do they think about the energy that is sapped by the process of travelling and living out of a suitcase to attend to them while they are ill. Now Heather and her husband would have to come back in two weeks for the replacement appointment.  It was unconscionable! They left on Saturday morning just after I left for the Market.

So after the Market on Saturday, I gathered together a few overnight belongings, a good book and drove into Vancouver. For sure I would feed the kittens every four hours; but for sure I would not  sit all weekend in the apartment. I had friends to visit; I had some things for the framer; I wanted to get down to the art supply store on Granville Island and if time permitted, wanted to get down to the Vancouver Art Gallery to see the Dutch Masters exhibition.

I packed two lists of instructions Maya had sent me by e-mail. I didn’t manage to leave Richmeadows until five. I went to the discount gas station to fill up the tank and then joined the rush hour traffic to make my way to the city. Despite a twenty minute bad beginning with parking lot conditions right on the highway, the driving went relatively smoothly. It took less than an hour to get to Maya’s place on the West side of town.

When I arrived, Gus was waiting at the door, perched on the ledge, arching his back up and feathering his tail in greeting. He might have been an escape artist a few years back, but after his brother, Buddy, died three months ago, he’s been quite morose and house-bound.

As soon as I had all my belongings brought in from the car, I set about feeding the poor little blighters upstairs.  Gus’ bowl was still full.

There were signs all over the house for me. “Leave the toilet seat up. Gus is toilet trained.”

A large hand-painted ceramic jar with a locking mechanism like you see on old canning jars was sitting on the counter beside the phone  and was marked “Gus’ treats!” with an exclamation mark.

By the sink, there were special cans of cat food for the kittens with a message saying,”Food for the kittens. Feed four to five times a day. They eat one can per day.” That was easy enough. A sign beside it said, “Add a tablespoon of boiling water and mix well. They need to have slightly heated food.”

On the fridge, there was a sign saying, “Eat anything you want from the fridge. Forage in the cupboards for anything else you need.”

The little kittens had not eaten since four and it was getting close to eight.  I spooned out some canned food and took it up to the little tykes. The TV room had been blocked off with three wide panels of interlocking laminate flooring. A sign on these said, “Always keep this barrier up.” A sign on the cat kennel said,  “Put the kittens in the kennel if you go out of the house.” There were directions everywhere. I could not go wrong.

I watched while these little four week old kittens devoured the food offering in twenty seconds, aggressively shoving each other to see who could eat more. It reminded me of one of those pioneer harvest festivals where people sat at tables and stuffed their faces with pies to see who could eat the most pies in ten minutes.

When the little plate was finished, I picked up one of the critters, the grey tabby.  It had gulped its food and now, its little distented tummy felt like one of those wine skins, soft and pliable yet full. The other little guy, a white kitten with big black spots,  was the same. They staggered away heavily, but within two minutes they were bouncing off the walls, tearing from one side of the padded room to the other, hitting up against the wall then tearing across to the other side.  Every once in a while, they would cross paths and stand up, splayed out as wide as they could be, waving their little paws at each other in mock battle and then fall to the ground, roll over then wrestle for two seconds before starting all over again. They were up on the couch then down on the floor. They lept up onto the carpeted tree with three staged landings, then bounced back down across the back of the sofa, down my shoulder, back to the wall, then ran up the red cloth that was protecting the new HD television. Lordy, they were busy. Off the wall. It lasted a good twenty mnutes and then they fell in a heap and slept.

Our children should be treated as well as these little orphan kittens. Five square meals a day. Lots of exercise (no obesity problems here), a stay at home parent and toys you’ve probably never seen – including hand crafted ones.  There were the normal ones, like tails you could wave about in the air and they would leap for. There was a normal log scratching post; but there was also one contained in a plastic container much like a frisbee. At the side of this one, there was a channel for two balls with bells inside that they could bat round and round the track like ball bearings,  but the balls would never get lost. There was a hemp covered springy toy with a jingly bell at the top of it and another that had a ball made of  layers of bright coloured wools mixed with shiny foils and lamés. There were three different kennels.  The dinner dish was a Mikasa glass nut dish; and the water bowl was a Japanese porcelain one with fish hand painted on the inside of it. Nothing was too good for these cats!

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It was more difficult, though, when I went to feed Gus. Gus was now waiting Sphinx-like beside the jar with Gus’s treats in it. He and the jar were both the same height. He was meowing pitifully, telling me that he had been starved all day and he needed treats to feel normal. He had eaten what was in his bowl but his stoic stance beside the treat jar made me realize that I had forgotten that essential ingredient to his daily rations. Would I please oblige, his pleading eyes cried out?

I looked in the fridge. I needed to be fed as well. I found a ready-cooked barbecue chicken, a big bowl of fresh cut summer fruits and the end of some prune-flavoured yogurt that would go nicely with it.  There were jumbo hot dogs with all manner of gourmet relishes, mustards and ketchup to go with it. There was an iceberg lettuce and a romaine one and half a dozen varieties of salad dressing.  There were two dozen eggs and a variety of cheeses, milk, cream and yogurt. In fact, the fridge was full and it was hard to see what was in it as a result. I could see Devorah’s hand in this. She was was spoiling me! I certainly would not starve.

I found what must be Gus’ meal – fresh chicken, ground into a mushy, fleshy substance. So that was there for his  next feeding.

For myself, I selected a loner thigh of breaded chicken that needed to be eaten. I found some kind of squash that had been pureed. There was a fresh French bread. I was tired. That would be enough. I put the chicken and the squash on a plate, covered it with a bowl so I didn’t end up having to clean the inside of the microwave before I left and put it in to heat. I found the cutlery drawer and extracted a fork. I went into the living room and sat in a comfy chair and started to eat my meal.

One mouthful told me my friends do not cook with salt. I went back to the kitchen and salted and spiced both the meat and the vegetable and returned to the living room.  I liked the chicken, but the squash left much to be desired. I fell asleep there. The day had been much too long.

I awoke at about eleven and went up to inspect my charges. It was time for their dinner again and I went through the process of cleaning the porcelain water bowl and the Mikasa pressed-glass cat-sized dinner plate. When the mixture complete with a tablespoon of boiled water was ready. I brought it up to my kitties. When they were finished, I tucked them in their spacious kennel for the night and locked them in.

It was late, but I was wide awake again. I went into the next room to use the computer. There on the desk was another note. “When shutting down the computer, say ‘Yes” to all questions asked!” and “Enjoy the kits! Don’t let Gus get too near them just yet!”

Below the note, there was a folder topped with the e-mail of instructions that I had received on Thursday. In handwriting at the bottom it said,”Look in this folder for more info on cats! Maya.”

I’d been too tired when I came in earlier to do a full sweep of the house for more directions.  Now, here was a sheet of more instruction if I should need to call the vet.  Inside the folder was information for warning signs of illness; and things to watch for like sneezing, ear mites, constant scratching, worms, etc

Constipation and bloating had an extra notation handwritten at the side. “ A teaspoon of pumpkin in food, morning and night.” Oh dear! Oh dear! oh dear! While trying to clear up the fridge of its bits and pieces, I’d eaten the kittens’ pumpkin puree for my dinner!!!!!!

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Sunday morning after another round of feeding, I went to visit Dorothy who only lives two miles across the city from where I”m staying. We shared gossip and the weeks events. I told her all about the kittens and then about eating their pumpkin “medicine”.

“Ee-ew!” she said, wrinkling up her nose and making a grimace. “You ate cat food?”

“It wasn’t cat food. It was pumpkin, ” I said defensively, “It was just pureed, cooked pumpkin. Luckily I didn’t like it very much and I left more than half of it. There’s enough for what I have to give them. And now  I realize why it wasn’t spiced up at all.”

“I don’t know….” says Dorothy. “Sounds like cat food to me.”

And so it goes. Today is Monday. I’ve fed the cat and kits and I’m off to do my city errands for the next three hours.


June 21, 2009

There is a Farmers’ Market every Saturday in the summer. It’s in full swing now that local produce is available. In

Tuesday’s paper, I saw that it was the special Art session and then I saw my name there too. Oops!

The organizers had promised me a tent if I would come. Jack was bringing his paintings as well. There was a third person named whom I didn’t know. If it was in an advertisement, I was committed, wasn’t I? The thought of gathering my bits and pieces together one more time palled. I found packing up the car wearisome, fatiguing, but I remember my weak moment when I agreed to participate. I’d just have to buckle under and do it.

During the week, I assembled a few affordable, small paintings and reproductions and a box of art cards. I decided to carry the minimum possible since the only thing I would get out of it, I knew, was additional advertising. It seems that people do not come to Farmers’ Markets looking for Art with a capital A. I could perhaps at least get the message out to a few that I was offering private lessons and maybe, in the bargain, sell a few of the cards or reproductions at ten dollars a pop.

But you never know. You might meet someone who wants to look at more paintings, who will take your card and call up later for an appointment to view.

The other thing that deters me from enthusiastic participation in the Market is that vendors have to be there around seven o’clock in the morning to set up tents and displays. I’m a notorious night owl. Going to sleep at two in the morning is not strange for me. Getting up at six is. It benumbs my mind. Being out of the house by six forty-five is unthinkable; and yet, I set my alarm for six and had everything pretty much ready to go on Friday night. All I had to do was get dressed, get breakfast and go.

In that fumbling half hour before I had to leave, some fool phoned me. I begrudgingly answered to hear a foreign voice asking, “Kay? Kay Kerrer?”

“That’s me,’ I said, none to warmly waiting for the sales pitch to begin. Who would call at this ungodly hour? Were they calling from Vancouver, Montreal or New York, or New Delhi? The quality of phone lines is such now that you can’t tell when you have a local or a  long distance call. Hugh was already home in Ottawa, but it couldn’t be him. And it couldn’t be Cecil, my theater friend who successfully plays jokes on me by imitating various occupations or accents.

“Who is this?” I said querulously, none to friendly.

“Do you remember France?” was the reply

France? Was that a woman’s name or a country. I knew both. I wasn’t ready for phone games or twenty questions.

“Of course,” I replied and then stayed silent, hoping I could get a bit more of a clue from this husky-voiced woman.

“It’s Sophie. Do you remember Sophie?”

“Of course! Sophie!” I brightened as much as a grumpy non-morning person could.

“Sophie Martinez,” she continued to explain, as if I still hadn’t got it.

“Sophie! Of course. How are you. Better yet, where are you?” And even more mysteriously, why or how was it that she  was talking in English when I had known her in France and we spoke French together.

The puzzle pieces began to fit in one after the other. Sophie! I had been twenty eight and she was eighteen. We had both come to France to study, but there was a world of difference. She had received some sort of scholarship to study and had come from Portugal. She came with her sister so that both of them would have a chance through education to make something of themselves. Their parents were so poor that they could not afford to keep them.

Sophie became responsible for her younger sister, for her food, for her education, for her upbringing. It was not the era where you could Skype home for free (if you had computers at both ends of the spectrum), nor e-mail nor even phone. In France, in the mid-‘Seventies a phone was rare thing. Many families did not have them. In Portugal, they were even rarer.  Sophie was on her own, with all the responsibilities.

In addition to her school workload, she worked to provide her sister with food. Her sister didn’t have scholarship, but the family had figured that if Sophie had a room as a student, she could share it with her sister at no extra cost. If she just worked a little harder, she could  share her food allowance and provide extras through a job in her spare hours.

I met Sophie through another student and we spent time together. When our mutual friend Emily returned back to her home in Belgium, Sophie and I continued to visit. Sometimes she would come to me for motherly advice although I had never been a mother. What was she supposed to do with a sister who would not study? It was unthinkable that she should work so hard and then her sister not even appreciate the opportunity.

I must have met her in the first year that I was there. She didn’t have much time for visiting but she came for dinner from time to time and I would send her home with care packages – an end of roast or ham, some fried rice, a breast of chicken, some sweets or a dessert.

I taught her a little bit about drawing and how to look at paintings. When she finished her studies, she was allowed to stay and work in France. She had some lesser job that didn’t pay much, and still she cared for her sister and still she sent money home.

I was piecing all this together as I kept her talking about what she was doing and where she was.  She had translated for an organization for many years and then she went freelance. There was more work in Luxumbourg than France. She moved. She was phoning from Luxembourg now.

” I kept looking for you. I heard you had gone home to Canada,” she said.  “I had friends who went to Canada from time to time. If anyone ever went, then I asked them to see if they could find you in the directory.” She listed off the names of about five different people who had come for this conference or that, or had come for a vacation. None had successfully brought back any information.

I inwardly smiled at this, as if Canada were such a small country that you could look in the directory in Montreal and discover where someone lived or their telephone number six thousand miles away in Vancouver.

“Finally someone helped me look you up on the Internet. I tried your web site and the e-mail address there but it didn’t work. But the e-mail didn’t get to you. It got sent back to me as undeliverable. A friend showed me how to find your name in the phone book on the Internet and now I am speaking to you!”

“Do you know, ” she continued, ” that I still have your painting? Do you remember that painting? It was the first piece of art I ever had. Bought, I mean. It was the first painting I ever purchased.” I did not tell her that I could not remember the  painting although I did remember that I wanted to lower the price of it for her but she was adamant, proudly wanting to support my work, proudly wanting to pay the proper price for it.

“I have it by my front door. Every time I’ve moved, I have it with me and I always p lace it right by the front door. ”

“And how about you?” she asked. What have you been doing? Tell me about you?”
“Oh Sophie, I would love to tell you, but I must be at work this morning. I will have to phone you back.” I felt dreadful. She was so enthusiastic and here I was, putting her off. It was the only time in months that I actually had a firm commitment to work. The irony of it!
“Oh! I’m so sorry. I didn’t think. What time is it?”

I told her and then I got her telephone number so that I could phone her back, but cautioned her that it wouldn’t be today.  In a few days.

We signed off and I rushed to get out the door. I was late for setting up my tent at the market. I still had to pack things into the car. My head was operating at half speed now instead of a quarter. My mind was filling up with things that I hadn’t thought of in thirty years. How I had left all of a sudden when my father had died. How I had tried to contact some people to let them know I why I had left so precipitously. How Sophie’s letter had come back to me and I had no way of finding out where she had moved to.  How I had never gone back because it was a recession and our business, Frank’s and mine, had failed and there was no money to come back. We had ipso facto both lost our jobs at the same time. How I had remade my life in Canada and done well. But I hadn’t found Sophie to tell her.

I had gone ahead with a different life and almost forgotten. I had put that life behind me as if it had not existed and constructed a new one. Now here was a friendship coming full circle.

How life has changed in the last thirty years. Her last words were,

“I’ll soon have a means of talking to you for free. I’ll be in touch.”

I thought of my conversation with Hugh while he was in Vienna,free on Skype.

I thought of the ease with which I e-mail friends now across great distances.

I thought how through this miracle of blogging,  I have friends in distant countries that I have never met, whose writings I enjoy so much – and photographs, and paintings, and other accomplishments.

And I thought how much easier it is now to find lost friends through the Internet.

It really is a miracle and it really is a blessing.

Mud pie

June 16, 2009

After four days of visitors and a bit of partying on Saturday night, then on Sunday, me going to visit Frank, my mind was quite full of non-spiritual thoughts. I drank my first cup of hot coffee of the day, then gathered my little kit of gardening implements – a trowel and and secateurs – and went out to water my thirsty plants. There’s nothing like gardening (for me) for giving me time to contemplate and meditate. It’s grounding (sorry for the pun, but I can’t find another word) and calming.

It’s been unseasonably hot here. Usually June is a thoroughly wet month. One June, 1983 I think it was, there were forty days and nights of rain; well, the rain spilled over into May and July a bit, to get that count. I remember it well because I came home from France that year when my Dad died. I arrived in time for the funeral. And if the rain was not depressing enough, and then my Dad, there was a recession going on, just about as bad as this one of 2008 and 2009. I was penniless and in need of a job.

When I phoned Mother, she had said, “Don’t come. There’s no work here.”

But Frank and I had shut the doors on our antiques and collectibles business. Spending had stopped short and money was going out, but it wasn’t coming back in. I came back to Vancouver anyway and then I had to find work.

I did any work I could find. I signed up with a temporary personnel agency. I was a writer in the Provincial elections. The writer is the person who finds your name on a list and crosses your name off when you get your ballot. It’s a bit of a misnomer. No one really writes anything. Just the opposite. The writer strikes through typeface.

It was through the temp agency that I got the clerical job with the Property Management company and that changed my life.  I doggedly hung on and I finally became a Property Manager, even though it took me six years. It was during that time that I taught at the local Art College – at night, during my annual leave, on weekends. Anything was good. And day after day, I went to work, in the middle of June, wearing a raincoat and umbrella.

But now it is just about the opposite. I can’t remember when last we had rain. May 15th, I think. The soil is dry and crumbly like desert sand. Water sits on the surface and does not soak in.

I don’t need to work; I’ve retired and I’m thankful for it. All the work I have is self-imposed. With my new, large garden to take care of, I decided to plant a few vegetables. I’ve never been very good at this. Last year the crop was two thin underdeveloped green beans (yes, just two) and one potato the size of a golf ball. This year I’ve been more adventurous and more hopeful.

Last week, I lucked out (or in) as the local farm was closing its annual plant sale. I managed to buy four flats and about ten individual plants, many of these were edible – a flat of Brussels Sprouts and four inch pots of  tomato, fennel, one artichoke, two cauliflowers, two cucumber, golden globe onions – and I’ve spent spare moments in the last few days trying to get these planted in full earth.

The gardens of this house have been neglected over the past few years. The soil is good in some parts but in others, its poor, sandy and dry. The poor plants need better than that if they are going to develop and produce. Luckily, Whistler brought me ten packages of mushroom and steer manure from the nursery last year when he was staying with me. I haven’t used them up and so I mixed them, one to one, with the dirt that I had shoveled out and then cleared of grass and buttercup mallow.

I was just pouring a half bag of steer manure into my mixing box when I began to think that this activity was no more, no less than the activity I engage in when making cookies and cakes.

With the grass and roots that I had dug out of the front yard beds, I shook off as much loose dirt as possible then let the remainder sit out in the hot sun until the dirt dried out more.  Next I used the wire mesh sieve that I have for the garden to screen out the pebbles and rocks; then I poured in the manure and mixed it around until the enriched soil was half and half, broken up like the crumble on an Apple Betty.

I admit that the shovel I use is bigger than a spoon and the pitch fork is bigger than your average kitchen one, but the activity is the same – sift, blend, stir, spoon out into a pot or a garden bed.

It’s rather satisfying to improve the dirt and put back goodness into the soil. I am counting that it will reward me with a better crop than last year, but I’m crossing my fingers too, and saying my prayers too.

Quite a day

June 12, 2009

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For a woman who usually rises at  nine, the seven thirty wake up call came too early. Despite all my early preparations, I was not functioning well enough to get out of the house before ten, and even then, I missed the self-imposed deadline because I took a phone call when I could have let it ring through to the answering machine.  At ten thirty, I started the car in the driveway, only to shut it off again and return to the house. I had forgotten to put the box I was delivering to the Historical Costume society into the car. It was the principal reason I was going to Vancouver for the day.

I went back to the house, turned off the alarm, picked up the box and returned to the car. Then I dug into my bag to get the directions only to find that I had taken it out just before I left in order to use a phone number on it but I  hadn’t put it back. It too was in the house.

I felt like I needed one of those rote punishments we used to get in school where a miscreant had to write a hundred lines:

I will not forget the box. I will not for get the box. I will not forget the box…. I will not forget the phone numbers and the directions. I will not forget the phone numbers and the directions. I will not forget the phone numbers and the directions.

I took all of mother’s precious dresses for them to preserve and use for their purposes of displaying and educating in the field of costume and fashion.

Cathy was waiting for me on the roadway when I got to their offices. They are situated in Burnaby Village Museum in the attic of a house built in 1926. Quarters are quite cramped since most of the space is taken up with storage. One room, about 1o foot by 12, previously a small bedroom, contained a table and two chairs. There were five us – myself, Cathy, Bill and two other women  – watching as we unpacked Mother’s pale blue wedding dress complete with matching gloves and veil; a ‘Forties little black cocktail dress in faille; a black velvet winter dress with a handmade lace collar; her pink ball gown from the ‘Fifties, lined with taffeta, but missing the crinolines that would have made it flare out. It had a sheer pink bolero jacket to match; a stunning white ballgown  all made of lace and silk netting, with a little jacket to match; and a jacket with real jet beading and sequins on silk netting.

This last one, they determined was pre-1900. It couldn’t have been Mother’s but it might have been Granny’s. Not that she would have worn it. She had no opportunity. Bill said it was common for the women of great houses to give the maids clothing once they were finished with it, and this was likely how it came into the family treasures.

There was a little netted hat and a pair of fine, fine silk stockings. There was a white ruffed collar in cotton that had been smocked at the neckline and hand-embroidered below that with little white apples. The lace on the bottom was also hand embroidered over cut-work.

They were thrilled with their new acquisitions. I was thrilled that someone was actually going to care for and preserve these lovely clothes.

Afterward, Cathy, Bill and I went for coffee and bite to eat, since it was noon already. There is a little Ice Cream Parlour in the Historical Village. They had soup which is right and good for lunch and I would have too, but I was felt instantly dessertish as soon as I saw their three berry pie and I don’t regret it one bit. It was a home made pie with plenty of berries, topped with ice cream.

Next stop was Vancouver to visit Mother’s old friend Gordon who is ninety-six this year – his birthday was in May. He’s getting frail but his mind is so clear and bright. Doreen, one of our mutual friends, came to visit as well.

When I told him of Hugh’s experiences at his conference in Vienna he began reminiscing then caught himself and apologized. He had rambled on, it’s true; but it was fascinating. He had been part of the UN Committee that was looking into the effects on health, in the early 1950’s concerning the atom bomb and nuclear disarmament. We could not persuade him to keep on talking about it.

Looking at it from his perspective, it was just something he did. Nothing special. But looking at it from my perspective now, it seem extraordinary that I was sitting in the room with a respected scientist who had formed part of that committee at a time when atom bombs were in their infancy.

Doreen hoped he had written down some of the marvelous things he had done, but he just chuckled deprecatingly and said there was really nothing to write down. It was just committee stuff.

The meter in the parking lot was ticking away its last minutes. I had to go. Heather and her husband were coming to stay for a few days and I had to go get something to feed them.
As I drove down the on-ramp to Highway One, cars were streaming from all westward directions. It’s a four lane highway at that point and there’s a lane for the on-ramp besides. There are cars that are trying to juggle their way to the right, to  the off ramp. There are cars merging on the right trying to get to the left-most lanes – the High Occupancy Vehicle lane and the fast lane, beside it.

Despite all the merging, rush hour traffic was proceeding at a slow but steady pace.  I managed to get into the low lane. It was then that I saw the mama pigeon sitting on the asphalt with cars racing over it, but missing it. The poor thing must have been terrified.  With the press of cars and the volume of traffic, it seemed no one was going to stop and rescue the poor bird.

Then the traffic slowed and someone was able to see the bird before having to swerve around it or smack-dab-in-the-middle go over it. It was a miracle it had not been hit, or for that matter, maybe it was there because it had been hit.

The car stopped. The pigeon got on its two wobbly feet and then walked three or four steps. It tried its wings and got lift off. It flew onto the scorched grasses of the the median and was safe

The rest of the day (once I got home) was ordinary. Tidying, watering plants, making dinner.

Reflecting back through the day, I want to talk to Bill again. I said little about him, above. He is a retired milliner which is unusual for a man, I think; and I was quite fascinated as he talked about his passion for fashion. I’ll write more about that another day.

Yard Sale

June 10, 2009

Her friend, the wheelbarrow, had been doing the hard transporting of goods but it was a shape not conducive to carrying boxes with its small rectangular bottom and widely sloping sides. The boxes lay on it at precarious angles and threatened to fall at the least irregular movement.

Kay felt weariness supersaturate her muscles and her bones.  It was the penultimate load of things to bring back in the house. The wheelbarrow would be no use to her for the remainder.

There were empty frames. Biggish ones. There were tubes of posters in a tall plastic container that might once have been a laundry basket. It had a fretwork of aeration holes going down two sides of it. When Kay tried to balance it on her friendly wheeled porter, the tubes of posters slid out. Impatiently, she removed the awkward container and picked up all the posters again. It wasn’t heavy. It just was, well, awkward. There was no other word for it.

“Bite the bullet.” she berated herself. “If you leave it now,  you’ll never have the courage to finish up. And it’s going to rain tonight.”

She dragged them to the back stairs below the porch. It was only two steps down to the basement door but they felt like Mount Everest. Every re-packed box needed to be brought in and placed back into storage.

Kay dropped a heavy carton into place and straightened up creakily. She stretched her muscles, twisting and straining to the left, trying to pull them out as far as possible and then she did it to the right. The muscle spasm in her lower back would not disengage.  She straightened, leaned her head back in another stretch, twisting her neck from side to side, joining her hands at her back and pulling her shoulders up and back.

As she continued to pull, she heard it. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

“What on earth?” she asked herself. She tendered her ear to listen more carefully.  And then she remembered the little girl. She was seven, maybe, dressed in a practice costume for ballet school. It was a body suit made in a tender rose colour. It had spaghetti straps and  a little transparent over-skirt that fluttered, barely covering her buttocks. Her hair was tied back in a tight pony tail with a frilly hair decoration in tight curls of bright rainbow colours .

Sweet as a button, she kept pulling on her father’s arm to help him look at the dazzling array of Kay’s merchandise.
“Daddy, Daddy! Look! Here’s a box that looks like a heart!”  It was one that Kay’s  aunt had left to her, crocheted in perfect kitsch and starched ro sugared  into box-like submission.  What it ever could be used for was beyond Kay’s understanding.

“Daddy, Daddy! Look!. ” She tugged on his sleeve. There was square travel clock, shiny with gold. It was the wind-up sort and Kay activated it to prove that it worked. It was now buried in a box and still ticking.

Bantering as she always did, Kay asked the little girl, “Did you just come from a ballet lesson?”

The bright coloured ribbons in her hair nodded. There was no answer; the girl had turned shy.

“Can you do a pirouette?” Kay insisted, trying to get the girl to respond.

“Or an arabesque?” The girl tightened her hold on her father’s arm.

“Show me what you can do,” Kay persisted.

With one awkward bent knee pointed backwards in the air, the girl balanced rockily on one foot then she fell, almost, catching her balance and then jiggling in frustration.  She tried again with the same results.

“Wonderful!” Kay encouraged her. “You just did a wonderful half-pirouette!”

The child seemed happy to be praised. She tugged on her father’s shirt.

“Daddy!” she insisted, “Now it’s your turn. You do it!”

Kay laughed, but the child was serious and pleaded. “Come on, Daddy. You can do it! It’s your turn.”

The tall, heavy man, looked down and smiled, “I don’t think so”.

Some how he diverted her and, on Kay’s suggestion, she tried an arabesque. Again the leg went out awkwardly, backwards. She toppled after a moment of concentration.

“Would you like the clock?” Kay said, realizing the father needed a way out from his child’s insistence.

“No clock today, ” replied the father and he leaned down to his daughter. He explained they had to pick up the mother. She would be waiting. And they were gone.

Two young Phillipinos arrived on bicycles and examined the merchandise with particular care. They conferred in whispers and seemed be very serious about their purchasing. They selected a lamp which Kay was pleased to have go to a new home for a dollar; they looked at some cutlery and rejected it; they seemed to be looking for household goods.

He picked up Kay’s folding chair and started to inspect it. It was new and in perfect condition.

“It’s not for sale,” said Kay hastily forestalling an offer. “It’s for me to sit down.” He looked puzzled and Kay realized he barely spoke English. She pointed to herself and the chair. He backed away in a nervous gesture, nodding that he had understood and he had not wanted to offend.

Kay proposed a shower curtain. “It has never been opened,” she said, encouraging them. “For a dollar?” and they took it. There was a large red carpet. It was a beautiful one but it was no longer fashionable with its low shag pile and bright red colour, but it was an excellent quality. All wool. Lovely red leaf designs in a Scandanavian aesthetic.

The two  looked at each other, their eyes questioning a hopeless assent from each the other, but the young man shook his head and pointed to his bicycle.

“Is it because you can’t carry it?” asked Kay.

“We have a bag,” he replied. But obviously not for the carpet. It seemed that it was not the right size for their house and they declined. They picked up one other item, a little gewgaw ornament of no consequence.

“Fifty cents?” he offered.

“You can have it,” she replied. It wasn’t the money. It was the the de-cluttering that was important. Besides, who else would want it, she thought. The free item unleashed their smiles and the couple recovered their bikes and took off.

It was a perfect day – not too hot. Not too cold. The heat, earlier in the week had been searingly hot. It had been forty degrees Celsius on Wednesday, thirty six on Thursday. Now rain was expected in the evening. The temperature had dropped to twenty three and it was warm and comfortable.

Kay had spent two days of sorting through books, pulling out items she wouldn’t read. She had taken several tours around the house looking for things that she didn’t use and wouldn’t use. While sorting out old books, she had found a box of classics – Shakespeare’s plays; Faulkner; Tennyson and Keats. She set aside the  Letters of Cato and two books by Balzac and put the rest in the sale pile.  She found a box of Mother’s favorite recipe books and culled them.

The  advertisement in the paper had announced the sale from ten until two, but on Saturday, people began to arrive at nine-thirty. It had taken two hours to set out the goods on the front driveway but  from nine-thirty onwards there was a  steady stream of six or seven people. The boxes had not been undone. One woman helped to put out the treasures onto a scrap piece of carpeting that kept breakables from the asphalt surface.

It was only an hour later that Kay found a perfect rose, a deep red rose, dried and still intact laying on the carpet where the goods were arrayed. At some time in her early love life, she had carefully kept this one rose, but who had given it to her? And for what occasion? It was a mystery. She picked it up and the petals fluttered to the ground one by one.

“How much are the books?” called a woman who was bending over the boxes of pocket novels and the old books.

“Everything is one or two dollars, except the one you are about to pick out It will be twenty dollars, so please make sure to ask. ”  The customer looked baffled then realized it was a joke and she joined the common chuckling.

Vans and trucks, Suburbans, SUVs, new cars and old came by. Some slowed while the occupants made a quick assessment of what they could see from the road. Others sent an emissary. One woman came and surveyed the offerings then left just as quickly saying, “my husband will want to see that.”

Husband and son descended from their van and the young man discovered a survey measuring tape bound in leather.

“A dollar?” asked the man. Kay’s heart fell. She shook her head.

“It was my father’s. I couldn’t let it go for just a dollar.” A silence fell between them. She didn’t know what price to say. She couldn’t keep everything. But what was it worth? To her? To him?

“If it was your father’s you should keep it,” he replied. He had given her permission to retire the item from the sale and she did so, gratefully.

“He was a surveyor,” she explained. “And an engineer.”

“My father is an engineer,” he replied pointing at the elderly man standing beside me.

“Really, you are an engineer?” she said. “What kind?”
“Electrical,” replied the father.

Kay picked up an ebony coloured object. It had two parallel bars with bits of brass that allowed it to swivel. Whether closed or separated, the bars always remained parallel. She handed it to him.

“Tell me then. What’s this? I know he must have used it for drawing but I can’t figure it out.”

“You’re right. It’s for drawing. It’s for writing the list of materials or directions down the side of a blueprint. It keeps the lines equidistant and parallel and all the right length.” He looked at it with some fondness, as if he had found an old teddy bear.

“Would you like to have it?” she asked, and his eyes shone but questioned her. “It’s yours. It’s a gift, ”  she said and he took it willingly.

Meanwhile, people were picking up items and turning them over, feeling edges for chips, looking for cracks, missing pages, faulty bits or other defects. In the Free box, a man lifted a round black container with a grill on it.

“What is that gizmo,” Kay asked. She’d found it in the basement and had no idea what it’s use might be.

“You put crystals in the little wire cage here” he said pointing out the little basket under the lid. It’s a chemical and it absorbs the damp from the air. Later, you find that the crystals are gone and the the bowl is full of water. You can buy them at Canadian Tire in sachets. ”
“I’d better keep it then,” said Kay. “When I found it, it was full of water. I must have damp in the basement, ” and she put it in the box that was gradually filling with things that she had reclaimed from her sale.

“Was your mother an educator?” asked a women as she held out a little blue book in one hand while proffering a dollar with the other. “My friend and I both thought the title was hilarious – “Tests for group intelligence” and someone has written a whole book about it.

“I wish mother were here. We used to come to garage sales together every week. She would have bought something. She always did,” a fortyish woman sighed in remembrance.

“Mine complained when I brought things home”  Kay countered, and thought of the countless times she had sneaked things in carried in her large black tote – mostly books.

From the first customer to noon, there was no stopping and then there was a lull. Everyone must have gone for lunch. Kay brought out her sandwich and gratefully rested in the folding chair. She had been on her feet  since eight. But it wasn’t long before she was back on her  feet, re-deploying her wares, consolidating the empty spaces, mentally sorting how the remainders would go back in boxes or be packed in the trunk of her car to be taken to the local thrift shop.

After one o’clock, a few others came, looked and went. Vini, vidi,Vici, thought Kay. I came, I saw, I conquered, as Julius Caesar purportedly had described one of his victories.  She wondered what the Latin garage sale would say. I came, I saw, I bought? Or, I came, I saw, I mocked?

The afternoon clients were not talkative. The good stuff had gone. There was now more junk than treasures. The curious were more critical, more disdainful and less apt to find something to take away. There were more pot-bellied men with long, greying hair, tattoos and leather jackets, their tee shirts proclaiming affiliation with Harley Davidson groups. Even the women were more casually dressed.

Kay had started to box the items for the thrift store when an elderly man with a hint of a German accent asked in a deferential manner, “Did you learn German from this book?”

“No,” replied Kay, ” it was my mother’s. I tried to read it when I was young, but I couldn’t read the Gothic lettering. By the time I was in school, the Gothic text was no longer in use for text books. ”
Kay proceeded to tell him how Mother had taken her last German lesson when she was sixteen; but when Kay had taken her to Europe and they had visited with a German family, Mother, at the age of  eighty-nine, had still been able to carry on a conversation with the man of the household. ”

He was a soft spoken man and when he wasn’t talking, he was listening intently. No one was about and so Kay stopped her labours and they talked. He was a carpenter who had immigrated when he was twenty, never returning to his home in Austria until after his Grandmother had died. They talked about craftsmanship and other lost arts. They exchanged memories of times gone past. He had selected one of Kay’s posters of Jean Millet’s painting, Vespers. It pictures a woman holding a  scythe in her hand and that reminded him of his family’s farm, of simpler days more in tune with nature, he said.

He turned the little Gothic German primer in his hands. It was for his grandson. He hoped it would make him think of his Austrian heritage, how things had once been. Kay silently wondered how such a messily marked up school book would mean anything to a teenager; but the man had a steady presence and gentleness about him and so she did not voice her doubts.

It was four o’clock, two hours past what she had foreseen for her sale. Her packing was partially done when Mirabel from the little white house with awnings, directly across the street, came darting across the busy road.

Though Kay had owned her house for two years, she had never spoken to this woman whom she saw out in the garden from time to time. Lively and talkative, she introduced herself and apologized for not coming over sooner. They complained about the neighbours, the new temporary residents of the house that was to be re-developed. She complained about their lawn which had been allowed to grow to three feet in height.

Mirabel was ninety-two, still driving, still doing her own gardening and house maintenance.  She recounted that, one evening while watering her plants at  early dusk, a young man  quite bizarrely dressed had insisted that she give him candy. He was speaking  weirdly and aggressively. She had been very nervous but had joked with him, mocked him, so as not to show her fear. It was just two weeks ago. She now was very wary. feeling vulnerable and frightened about living alone.

The conversation went on and on. Kay was so pleased to have met her but was anxious to finish with her day, to clean up the yard and put away the remaining debris. It sorted out without a hitch. A mother with her handicapped child came, another neighbour, and the conversation shifted. Gradually Kay resumed her packing and the other women did not seem to notice as she withdrew.

At last Mirabel called, “I have to go now. I bought a blower and I’m going to clean out my garage with it this afternoon. Come over and have tea with me sometime!”

What a marvel, thought Kay, as Mirabel darted across the busy street again. Within minutes, Kay could hear the blower droning as her elderly neighbour chased cobwebs and dry leaves from her garage.

In earnest, Kay began to haul away the boxes to the back yard with her trusty wheelbarrow. She filled the car with things she would no longer need – not even to plump up and fill out her next yard sale.

She returned from the back to see a lady standing with a small hand made pottery jug. “I don’t have any money to pay you for this, ” she said.”I’m just waiting for a friend to go walking so I didn’t bring any money.”

“The sale is  finished,” said Kay.  “Take it with you. I don’t want to pack it or keep it. If you really want to pay me for it, leave me a loonie in my mail box up there on the porch some day when you are passing by.”

It was six o’clock before the last trace of the sale was removed from the yard. Exhausted, Kay’s spirits sank when she thought about going in to make dinner. She was famished. And then a luminous idea began to grow.

Here she was with a bundle of new found cash! She could pay someone else to cook dinner! And the last we saw of Kay that day was her driving down Dewdney Trunk Road heading for Austin’s Fish and  Chips cheering up considerably at the thought of crispy battered cod, their fresh light coleslaw and book to keep her company.

Reaping the benefits of the garden

June 3, 2009

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Kay had been laid up with a bronchial infection. She ignored it until Saturday and then went to the doctor for some medication.
“You’ll feel a difference by Wednesday, and the cough may last a lot longer than that, but the infection will be gone,” said her GP. “Rest lots; don’t do much gardening; stay out of the sun and drink lots of liquid.”

She left the doctor’s office, exiting to a brittle light and promptly protected her eyes with a good pair of sunglasses. The weather was magnificent: four days in a row with high heat and clear magnesium blue skies.

Early in the evening as the sun’s rays were dancing long shadows on the lawn, Kay took pity on her poor, ignored flower beds and her neophyte vegetable garden.  They hadn’t been watered through this daunting heat wave and it was time to give them a soaking.

She set up a soaker hose in the front yard along the north fence-line. In the back, she set one up along the western fence where the potatoes, garlic and strawberries were sharing accommodations.

The  pots grouped around the small herb garden were on the Saharan scale of aridity.  Kay filled ten gallon pail with water then doled it into the various large pots filled with geraniums, lobelia, petunias recently planted and all crying out for a drink of water.

In this same spot, she had collected a nursery of transplanted shrubs, a few lilies, Japanese Iris, some winter jasmine, two small Japanese maple saplings and several other pots containing lone vegetables that she was trying to germinate to adolescence by keeping them out of the way of wandering slugs, snails and voracious garden pests.

She was only beginning at this home food production and didn’t know what would grow well in the local soil.  Kay checked the radishes that were now up far enough to have two roundish leaves each, albeit going a bit yellow from lack of water. She had planted them at the foot of the seedling Maple since it had been the only denizen of  a 16 inch pot and the soil was deep and richly fertilized.

She admired the two lettuces in another of these big pots, a butter lettuce and a red curly-leafed one, that she had purchase ready-grown to a height of three inches. After a month’s nurturing, they were up another inch and both lacked leaves in the center where she had pinched out a few leaves for a sandwich one day. Radishes were showing first leaves in this pot too.

With this darned bronchial infection, she had not been very interested in food. Nothing seems to have any taste.  Kay had come  into the garden as a distraction from her vague dinner preparations. She had decided on a plain Angus hamburger patty because she hadn’t eaten meat in day, but for the rest, nothing else seemed palatable to accompany it.

Now she watered the lettuces. They looked stalwart, healthy and crisp. The idea of a few leaves of this with chives and the chive flowers might just be the right, light accompaniment to the meat,balancing her meal with token vegetables. After all, what was the use of a garden, if you didn’t eat the produce it yielded? She picked a half dozen leaves.

Kay pulled off six or seven small fluffy chive flowers and stems plus a sprig of  fresh thyme. All she had to do was add a dash of dill dressing and she would not have any kitchen work to do.

Clutching this bit of salad in her hand, she finished her watering then went back into the kitchen filled with purpose now that her meal was decided.

It’s incredible how in simply watering and encouraging plants, one’s hands can get so dirty.  She placed her salad fixings on the counter and scrubbed the soil from her hands. There was a mixing bowl in the sink and she filled it with fresh water, dunking the lettuce and chives in it, swishing them around to get any dirt or little bugs off of them. While it soaked,   the meat sizzled in the small fry pan.

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Kay had a new pottery serving bowl and she collected her dinner into it, proceeding to the living room to eat whilst a bit of television entertained her. It was a perfect dinner – was just enough to satisfy and no more.

When the program finished some twenty minutes later, Kay picked up the bowl from the floor where it lay. A small piece of lettuce was stuck to the rim of the bowl and she picked at it, to finish it off rather than let it slide down the drain.

It was no leaf! It stuck, glued to the edge. It was a baby slug, clinging for dear life to the darkest part of the glazed decoration!

“Ew! Yuck!”  said Mr. Stepford, when she recounted her tale hours later. “… but it’s just another piece of protein.”

“I couldn’t have eaten one, ” replied Kay, belying the worry that had assailed her since her distasteful discovery. “I would have tasted it…. but my dinner was just fine.”
“Ew!”  said Mrs Stepford. ” How did you feel?”

“” I’m still feel slightly nauseous.  I’m glad I didn’t discover it while I was eating. I’ve been thinking about it all evening. Gardening,” she laughed,”  is not for the faint of heart.”

BTW, if you can help Kay identify the potter, creator of the beautiful bowl pictured above, please do. It’s made in B.C. ; it’s got this signature with Scott marked on the bottom, but I’d like to know more.

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